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Manufacturing has been a critical aspect of technology that has pushed society into new eras. We have all heard of the industrial revolution, the Cotton Gin Machine, Ford's assembly line, electricity, and so on. Advances in transistor manufacturing are what have made desktop computers then laptops then smart phones possible. These things changed the world because they increased productivity, created new product possibilities, and made things cheaper or more accessible. We are on the verge of the next industrial revolution. I think the maker movement, 3-D printing, and the open source movement are the seedlings of bigger and better things.
The future of manufacturing is not just about making something. Manufacturing is about selecting the best technology and materials with respect to reliability and reproducibility. It is not just the technology, but the process of designing a manufacturable product. It is engineers and designers coming together to design the product and manufacturing methods. That paradigm could be very different in the future. I find it strange how hard it is to imagine a future of manufacturing that sounds like science fiction. It seems that everything is within reach. That is an exciting feeling, is it not? I do have one idea that seems out of reach for any but science fiction writers, but we will wait to the end of the article for that.
We have all the tools, right now, to make an Any-thing-o-matic (or should it be repli-thing-ator?). What is this marvel of the future you ask? It's a device that can make anything by using a series of different builder arms and a reservoir of many different materials. If you are at all familiar with what Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) manufacturing, 3-D Stereolithography, and 3-D Additive printing techniques can accomplish then you might not be impressed by the idea. All those manufacturing techniques program a machine to remove or add material. So this first proposition sounds like sticking together a bunch of different machines (welders, printers, lathes, mills, etc.) with a reservoir full of materials. It is not something that is easy to make, but I can understand it is not that impressive either.
Let us take it a step forward. It's not just an assortment of manufacturing techniques anymore. The Anything-o-matic has a library of things that stretches as far as the imagination can reach. A super thingiverse. Since it has that library, you can just ask it for whatever you want. Need a book case, table, or shelf? Ask and you shall receive.
Those ideas are just mechanical products. What about electrical systems? Well, with the right inventory of electronic parts, a separate electronic assembler could make one piece while the mechanical assembler makes the housing. In fact, 3D printed circuit boards are here (Check out this successful Kickstarter and this commericial product on the way). Lastly, an integrating assembler would put the whole thing together. Now that we really can make any consumer product, let us start imagining what else it can do. We will add to the system a holographic input module that allows you to input boundary conditions. What does that mean?
For example, pick three points in space with your hand and denote them as mounting points then swipe a line across the top of them and say shelf 25'' wide. The Anything-o-matic will then prompt you with a question: wall material? You'll answer glass because you've got a fancy glass wall in your future house. The Anything-o-matic then solves the structural and design problem and comes back with a design where ten-thousand tiny suction cups modeled after the gecko foot makes up a mounting edge. It tells you the maximum shelf weight is 20 lbs. All that is left is for you to command it, "Make it so!"
How can you tell if a shelf is strong enough? One way is to solve the equations of deflection and stress. That is a closed form mathematical solution. However, if you wanted to be able to arbitrarily set up boundary conditions or look at a variety of different materials you will need a general method built into your anything-o-matic. A method of solving how materials react to certain environment loads (structural, thermal, electro-magnetic, fluid) is called Finite Element Analysis (FEA). FEA is a technique that has been used for close to six decades. It was used to analyze the structural integrity of the lunar module and it is used today to solve a huge variety of complex problems. Do you remember in the last ten years when all the water bottles were boasting an eco-friendly design because they started using less plastic? Figuring out that new design was done by FEA. FEA and 3-D computer models work together very well because you can set up a problem where it changes a variable then computes a result, repeatedly. This allows you to optimize a design. In the water bottle example, the geometry was changed such that the minimum amount of plastic required to hold 12 fluid ounces was determined. The heart of FEA is a large series of math equations that relate the forces imposed on a body to a reaction. For example, an equation relating force and displacement would be the basis for analyzing how a shelf bends when books are placed on top of it. Automating this analysis technique will be key in future manufacturing systems.
This thing is getting cooler, right? Not only can you have a library of parts, but you can have a library of technologies. That library can include electrical circuits, sensors, finishes, artistic inspiration, and user rated solutions to build solutions to any problem. Another feature would be to add in a 3-D scanner so that it can perfectly match new parts to old parts. For example, if you need a new drain pipe for your sink. Instead of running out to the store, you remove your old one and put it in the scanner. You then tell the computer it’s a broken piece and indicate the broken zone. You follow up with telling it what it is to be used for. You can go watch some TV while your new part is being made instead of having to run up to the store.
Everything I have described so far can be built with present day technology. It would of course be expensive and I do not think anyone thinks going to the store is such a hassle that it must be eliminated from the face of the earth. I was actually beginning to think an all in one assembly pod might be the kind of technology suitable for planet colonization and exploration. It would be adaptable to a wide variety of situations. It could rapidly manufacture anything colonists in far away places would need. Now, it is time for the science fiction part of today's program.
Remember, I mentioned that this machine needed a stock pile of materials? Well materials are made of atoms and the difference between carbon and iron is the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons. This technology does not exist, but I could imagine systems that can combine free electrons, protons, and neutrons to create any material combination that is needed. That kind of technology is probably closer to 500 years from now. We would need a method of reliably splitting atoms, using/absorbing the release of energy and collecting individual protons, neutrons, and electrons to later be forcefully pushed against each other to make atoms. Perhaps, a system like this is better off being built in the far reaches of deep space—another reason for space exploration in my book.
For more future technology, you may enjoy the article "What will the future look like: Present Day Tech Impacts".